White House Addresses Bullying in Day-Long Conference
Let me take you back to 9th grade. (Ugh. I know.) One of my best friends was moving away, and another friend and I were planning a going-away party. I fell out of the planning loop at some point, a month went by, and one day I found out they had the party without me! All of my friends attended and no one told me. It was such a big event that they must have actively kept it a secret from me. For a little while, I found myself the target of quiet, intentional social exclusion, and at the time it rocked my vulnerable adolescent world. If a relatively minor event could impact me so much, it’s difficult for me to imagine the kinds of stress and trauma other students endure as a result of more severe and prolonged bullying.
While nearly all of us have fallen victim to our peers’ cruelty at one point or another, severe bullying, often based on a part of someone’s identity, is a true threat to many students, as the multiple suicides of students identified or presumed to be LGBTQ have tragically proven. Underlining the huge toll bullying can take, these troubling events also highlight the complex and nuanced nature of modern bullying.
As my story illustrates, bullying is no longer simply name-calling, but can take innumerable forms based on complex social interactions. Technology like cell phones and social media sites presents students with an entirely new (and often under-monitored) environment for interaction. Given these emerging circumstances, bullying is often difficult for even supportive adults to identify and address.
To attempt to better address this complex and ever-changing problem, last Thursday the White House held a day long conference to address its initiatives targeting bullying and to discuss policies and programs with experts, teachers, students, parents, and media.
The President and First Lady began the day by discussing bullying from their vantage point as parents as well as political figures. Mrs. Obama called particular attention to the role of adults in modeling respectful behavior for kids, as well as calling out and addressing bullying behavior when they see it. President Obama recalled his school days of being teased for his name and big ears, and specifically mentioned that bullying is “…more likely to affect kids that are seen as different, whether it’s because of the color of their skin, the clothes they wear, the disability they may have, or sexual orientation.” He announced that a third of all middle- and high-schoolers report being bullied during the school year, and almost three million students have been physically accosted as part of bullying.
Several family members of students who committed suicide as a result of bullying attended the conference, and President Obama thanked them for attending. Other special guests in attendance were students and parents who have started anti-bullying initiatives and brought awareness to the issue in their schools. One inspiring story involved two California sisters, Sarah and Emily Buder, who began a supportive letter-writing campaign to a neighboring girl who was being bullied after having an epileptic seizure in class. Their initiative blossomed, and thousands of letters poured in from around the U.S. in support of their neighbor. As President Obama said in his address, “It’s easy for us to forget what it was like to be teased or bullied. But it’s also easy to forget the natural compassion and the sense of decency that our children display each and every day—when they’re given a chance.”
Following the President and First Lady’s address, several breakout discussions followed with senior White House officials. Sessions on community based programs, cyberbullying, in-school programs, campus-based programs, and in-school policy involved relevant White House staffers, parents, teachers, students, invested community organizations like the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and education organizations like the American Federation of Teachers. Each session discussed challenges and solutions, inviting all participants to express their perspectives. Also on Thursday, the White House announced the launch of www.stopbullying.gov, an online resource site, as well as initiatives by Facebook and MTV, among others, aimed at deterring bullying.
The sheer complexity of bullying, aided by technology, was a major theme of the day. As Thursday’s conference proved, creating effective programming and policies is an equally tricky endeavor. I thought the clear focus on linking adult behavior to students’ bullying was a responsible and much-needed insight, as well as the Administration’s especial focus on technology’s complicating role in student bullying. We needn’t look any further than the students who have died as a result of peer cruelty to see the urgent need to utilize the momentum from Thursday—not only to create more compassionate schools, but to create more compassionate students. Once we reach that goal, hopefully everyone will be invited to the going-away party.
Jessica Mowles is a staff writer with Campus Progress